THEMES IN THE DOCUMENTARY
RGUING THE WORLD - explores a number of themes central to twentieth century political, intellectual and cultural history in America. The story of these four mens lives and of the New York Intellectual group is a history of what, William Barrett, philosopher and former editor of Partisan Review referred to as the two M's: Marxism and modernism.
At the same time, their Jewishness, regardless of how much they chose to emphasize or repress it at various periods of their lives, was an important factor in the way they approached their political and cultural calling and indeed in the way they approached America. The following four themes are important topics for consideration when exploring the lives of the New York Intellectuals.
HE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS AND POLITICS - While the New Yorkers had a wide range of interests, it was their interest in politics which most clearly defined them as a circle and set them apart from other groups of intellectuals. And it was their early Marxism which endowed their politics with an enduring intellectual cast.
ARGUING THE WORLD explores the importance of their early political initiation into the radical left. It was as precocious anti-Stalinists that these men seized on what would become the critical political debate of the twentieth century: the question of political ends versus means. Their fight against Stalins Soviet regime was an attack on political dictatorship and totalitarian rule and it led them to an early appreciation of the importance of democracy in any truly just political system.
Some writers have leveled criticism at the New Yorkers for what they describe as their excesses in fighting domestic communism during the early stages of the Cold War, arguing that some of the New Yorkers' rhetoric concerning freedom and civil liberties was contradicted by their actions in joining the McCarthyite battle against American communists. "They threw other folks on the Left to the wolves. It seems to me that if one is trying to ask what is a moral, political position for those years, it didn't add up to one," explained Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation.
Other historians such as John Patrick Diggins have praised the New Yorkers' intellectual and political consistency in defending those values such as intellectual freedom that they held most dear. "Rather than trying to 'outdo the Right in its anticommunist zeal'," Diggins has written "the intellectuals who opposed communism had taken their stand long before the McCarthy era; indeed they tried to inform the public about the Soviet Union when the country was pro- not anti-, Soviet." The film presents this controversial debate.
HE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS AND MODERNISM - By the time the New Yorkers were coming of age in the 1920s and '30, the great twentieth century movement of modernism was firmly underway. Yet modernism had not established itself outside the boundaries of the cultural avant-garde, especially within the United States.
Partisan Review embraced cultural modernism and championed authors from poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to novelists Marcel Proust and James Joyce. For the New Yorkers, modernism struck a series of responsive chords, not least among them, the desire to shed the parochialism of their immigrant upbringing for a wider more cosmopolitan vision.
As Irving Howe explained in his essay on the New York Intellectuals: "In the '30s ... it was precisely the idea of discarding the past, breaking away from families, traditions, and memories which excited intellectuals. They meant to declare themselves citizens of the world and, that succeeding, perhaps consider becoming writers of this country."
The dominant themes of modernism spoke to these young men. Just as the great modernist writers defined themselves as alienated critics of an inhospitable and morally flawed society, so the New Yorkers as immigrant and radical intellectuals inhabited the margins of their world. Modernism was defined by its opposition to middle class norms.
This greatly appealed to the New Yorkers who aspired to be cultural critics themselves. And ultimately it would be the self-appointed task of the New Yorkers to bring modernism to the larger society. By the 1950s and '60s as both professors at universities and critics and writers they helped enlarge the audience for this once elite literature, helping establish its place within the larger culture.
At the same time as these men matured and found themselves at the center of American culture, a New Left emerged to embrace the anti-middle class pose of modernism, in their lives and in their politics. Battling the young radicals on college campuses, the men began to question the very nature of the modernist enterprise, seeing it as having spawned an adversary culture fundamentally hostile to American society and values they had come to accept.
HE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS AS JEWISH AMERICANS - The history of the New York Intellectuals is also the story of the increasing assimilation and influence of the American Jewish community. From their origins as the sons of immigrants in the working class neighborhoods of New York their journey took them first to the cosmopolitan precincts of Manhattan and finally to campuses of this country's most distinguished universities. Today Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Irving Kristol in Washington D.C. Until his death in 1993, Irving Howe lived in New York.
As young men they were bent on moving beyond the particularism of their Jewishness and sought escape in the internationalist sensibility that modernism and Marxism provided. As they matured into their thirties and forties, these men began to reclaim their Jewish identity -- in Jewish literature study groups conducted by Bell, Glazer and Kristol; in studies of ethnicity and essays on Jewish Americans written by Glazer and Bell; and by the study of Yiddish literature and culture by Howe.
But with their typical bravado, the New Yorkers saw even this coming to terms with the particular as a universal experience. The New Yorkers as Terry Cooney, author of The Rise of the New York Intellectuals wrote, viewed the "interplay between cultures... [and] the effort to establish a personal and collective identity ...as a central experience for modern humanity." While all of the men continue to have strong Jewish identities, Irving Kristol, has, in addition, been a strong advocate for the role of religion in American life.
HE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS AND THE ROLE OF THE INTELLECTUAL - The New Yorkers began their careers as intellectuals and have steadfastly clung to this vocation. Much of their fight against communism from the 1930s through the '50s and their later arguments with the New left involved a defense of intellectual freedom against what they perceived as authoritarianism and political expediency.
The film explores how these individuals rose from obscurity to make their mark on American society both as writers and as distinguished teachers in leading universities. It examines the role of the intellectual in society and to what degree the intellectual should be an affirmer or critic of society and its values.